A recent discussion made me think, is it time for the Royal Navy to have a real hospital ship?
I think the military, foreign aid and political benefits of a hospital ship are well recognised and as such is probably be something we try and pursue. The Chinese navy hospital ship "Peace Ark" sailing with the USN 6th fleet
With the 2024 out of service date for RAF Argus approaching we would like to hope back of the napkin plans are being drawn up for her replacement, however any mention of this was absent from the recent SDSR. Perhaps the retirement of Argus, our current casualty receiving and training ship, presents an opportunity for us to sail a real hospital ship under the Blue Ensign.
I would suggest replacing Argus with 2 separate platforms, focusing on a single role. This goes against my normal thinking of pushing for multi-role assets, but in this instance I think a specialised hospital ship, as well as a dedicated training ship, is the better option.
One of the concepts I quite liked from DSEI is the French training ship VN Partisan, provided by Seaowl, which I dont think I've seen discussed around here. Such a ship has the potential to replace the training element conducted by Argus. The concept is a cheap offshore supply vessel conversion that can be used for aviation training, boarding training, technology development and in support roles. It seems like a nice model from the French, something I think we would be wise to follow.
An offshore supply vessel conversion is also a sound option for the replacement of RAF diligence, it would make sense to base both of these future ships of the same platform for added commonality bonus points!The french training ship VN Partisan
So that brings me on to the replacement of Hospital role of Argus. Right now Argus cannot be called a hospital ship, which is why I think we should separate the roles of Argus, so we can have a fully fledged hospital ship.
I think a good model to follow for this ship would be Africa Mercy, operated by the charity mercy ships. The Africa Mercy is a converted RORO ferry, which gives it excellent capabilities deploy its resources inshore, reaching more people in need. Such features would be useful for our hospital ship, adopting a commercial design, with commercial equipment will of course lower procurement and support costs. The RORO features would also prove useful, not only for the medical roles, but also for the delivery of foreign aid. I think it is fully possible such a ship could be sent to a disaster zone, loaded with UK foreign aid, to provide both supplies and medical support to those who need it, and this can be achieved without using a military auxiliary that is better deployed on military tasking.
As usual the problem with such a suggestion is money. I have often seen it suggested the the foreign aid budget should just buy the MOD equipment. Not only is that totally against the DFID rules, I think it is conceptually wrong. We should not expect one of the worlds top democracies (Check the list https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index
) to be spending aid money on military equiptment, that sounds like a very shady business and is totally unacceptable.
The lines between military and aid are slightly blurred with a hospital ship. It certainly isn't a warfighting asset, but I think it is clearly an asset with military value, and as it would be operated by the RFA I think it is tipped onto the military asset side. As such it is wrong to expect the DFID to purchase the RFA equipment, we wouldn't expect them to buy the RAF C-17’s would we.
However the DFID has always reimbursed the MOD for the use of its assets when they are tasked to deliver foreign aid, so this model should be followed and creates a method to fund a new hospital ship. The RFA should build and operate a hospital ship under a PFI. Under this agreement the ship is a fully commissioned RFA owned and operated asset, but with no upfront cost. Most of the time the ship will be tasked with delivering foreign aid, or providing medical assistance, such as the excellent work by ship and crew treating ebola. During tasking like these the DFID pays the MOD, using the longstanding model, which covers the repayments on the PFI. During these times it costs the MOD nothing. When their is a military need for a hospital ship it can be retasked, and now the MOD pays the PFI.
How much would this cost? lets do some woolly maths.
The annual cost of the charter for HMS Endurance was £8.7m
The annual operational costs for RAF Argus is £8.9m
So we can expect the cost of this hospital ship to be around £17m annually
The DFDI budget is £11.1bn in this year, so if we funded 90% of two hospital ships from this budget, it would take up just 0.28% of the budget. That is a tiny proportion of the budget, for what is a very visible product of the public's contribution to foreign aid, and a great ambassador for Britain.